When I joined the National DRAGSTER staff in early 1982, one of the first people to openly embrace “the new guy” was Funny Car racer Tripp Shumake. Slight of stature but big of heart, I don’t know that there was anyone in the pits who didn’t like him. He always seemed to be in a good mood, a broad smile popping out below that thick mustache and eyes gleaming below a mop of hair.
Born James William Shumake III, he got the name by which all of us know him from his mother, who called him “Lil Trippy" because he was the third generation with that name. With his charming wife, Susie, they were the perfect couple, and with adorable daughter Heather, they made the perfect family. Little Heather melted the hearts of everyone she met, and she met a lot of people. Although Tripp only won two NHRA national events in his career, he was a winner in ways many of us will never achieve.
Although he had been racing since the late 1960s, Shumake earned national fame in the late 1970s and early 1980s as the driver of Johnny Loper's Loper's Performance Funny Cars, in which he became a member of the Cragar Five-Second Club. He appeared in three Funny Car finals and won two, at the 1981 Southern Nationals in Atlanta in Loper’s car and the 1982 World Finals at Orange County Int’l Raceway while driving a second Chief Auto Parts Funny Car, a Ford EXP, as a blocker for Billy Meyer. He also was a member of the Crane Cams Funny Car 250-mph Club.
We lost Tripp 13 years ago next week, Nov. 13, 1999. He was killed by a wrong-way, hit-and-run driver while riding his Harley-Davidson motorcycle near his Chandler, Ariz., home. As this week’s race marks the 30th anniversary of his final win, it’s a great time to remember him.
I have been fortunate over the years to remain in contact with Susie, sharing our memories of Tripp, and, more recently, to be in touch with little Heather, who’s suddenly not so little anymore. She’s all grown up, 35, with two kids of her own, 10-year-old Connor and 7-year-old Cassie. I never met her brother, Tripp and Susie’s son, Travis, who is 28, but you can see a photo of him below.
Heather asked to share her thoughts and memories of her dad, which I am more than pleased to do. Enjoy.
Heather (Shumake) LeVay with John Force and Ashley Force Hood at last year's Mile-High Nationals.
" 'The nicest guy at the track was always Tripp Shumake,' John Force said to my family and me when we visited him at the Mile-High Nationals in Denver last year. 'Ol' Tripper was always in a good mood and had a smile on his face.'
"Every person I've spoken to since my father was taken from us too soon has said something similar to me. He was one of the good guys. He showed up at the track early, worked on the car, and truly loved to race. Tripp was humble, and he made his fellow racers laugh. Back then, racing was a family event. I was born and raised at the track with the help of families like the Coughlins, Amatos, Bernsteins, Gwynns, and Gliddens. My mother, Susie, worked on the car with my dad, backed him up [after the burnout], and helped drive the truck/trailer to the next race each week no matter how far across country that might be. We slept in roadside motels, ate at Denny's, and created the most wonderful childhood memories.
"My father was my hero. I miss the smell of the nitro that would fill my lungs and make tears pour out of my eyes. I miss my dad's firesuit and the scary gas-mask filters he would wear that made him look like Darth Vader. I miss helping him pack the parachute.
"His racing career began in the late 1960s. In 1969, he worked and raced for Chuck's Speed Center in Phoenix. He raced Chuck Forstie's Corvette to numerous wins at Beeline Raceway. In 1971, he decided to go on tour with the famous Funny Car racer Dickie Harrell. When Harrell suffered fatal injuries in his race car, Tripp returned to Phoenix, and in the next several years, he worked/drove for Connie Kalitta, Shirley Muldowney, and Kelly Chadwick, just to name a few.
The 1981 Southern Nationals was a memorable event for Tripp Shumake. He not only drove Johnny Loper's Arrow into the final spot in the Cragar Five-Second Club (5.98), but also won his first national event.
Shumake's second and final win came in Billy Meyer's Ford EXP at the 1982 World Finals at Orange County Int'l Raceway.
"His claim to fame and the cars he loved to race were the Phoenix-based teams like Dennis Fowler's Sundance Funny Car, John Powers’ Winemaker, the Powers Steel Funny Car, John Aleman's fuel altered, Joe Pisano's Funny Car, the In-N-Out Burger Funny Car, and Johnny Loper's Lil Hoss.
"Tripp was a member of the Cragar Five-Second Club. He also was the fourth man in history to drive a Funny Car over 250 mph. The famous 250-mph ring (one of only eight in the world) was his prize possession. Tripp was inducted into the Arizona Racing Hall of Fame in 1996.
"Later in his career, Tripp was a color commentator for NHRA at the national event in Phoenix each year. He was a hometown hero and was always gracious with his fans.
"My dad's memorabilia is on display in my basement with his Wallys, ‘Billy Beer’ trophy, photos, magazine covers, and fan letters. My two children were not fortunate enough to have met him, but they love watching his old racing videos and have inherited his determination, humor, and zest for life. He made a lasting impression on everyone he met, whether it be a fellow racer, a fan, a member of his church community, a neighbor, or a friend.
"It will be 30 years this weekend since my dad won the World Finals, and I think the best way to remember him would be in his own words when Steve Evans interviewed him after his World Finals win. He said, 'You know, my wife and I have a prayer in our trailer each morning before the race, and this morning I said, "Lord, no matter whether I win or lose, just let me do the best I can do." And how can you ask for more?' "
Thanks so much for sharing with us, Heather. I know that I'm not alone in thinking the world of your dad and wishing he were still with us. Another great one gone too soon, but we'll always remember him.
OK, kids, it's off to Pomona for the Finals tomorrow to see shiny new champs crowned (literally; well, literally that they're new, first-time champs, not so much still shiny after a yearlong battle), so follow along with us on NHRA.com and Twitter. I'll see you next week.